July 17, 2013

In Defense of Disengagement

Camp Grounded

An intriguing essay appeared on Atlantic.com last week. It ran under the headline, "'Camp Grounded,' 'Digital Detox,' and the Age of Techno-Anxiety." The subhead was "What to Make of the New Naturalism."

The piece was a reflection by the Atlantic's technology editor, Alexis Madrigal, on Camp Grounded, a three-day retreat that offered 300 or so people in California an opportunity to disconnect completely from their technologies. Reporters from The New Yorker, the New York Times, and National Public Radio covered the event. Digital Detox was the name of the group that sponsored it.

As a rule I find Alexis Madrigal a thoughtful and insightful writer. I'm predisposed to that opinion, given that he's published an essay of mine in the past, and I hope he'll do so again in the future. On this occasion, however, there were some points I disagreed with. 

Madrigal began by describing the rules in place at Camp Grounded (no digital devices of any kind, no watches, no talk about work, no discussion of people's ages, no real names) and listed some of the activities offered there, including yoga, "laughing sessions," journaling, and conversation. NPR said the conversation option was especially popular. Madrigal noted the connection to other middle class manifestations of tech anxiety, among them the organic food movement and the quest for authenticity. No processed foods, no processed relationships.

Although he said he takes tech anxiety seriously, you had a sense Madrigal was probably smiling as he typed, and who could blame him? There's something irresistibly humorous when grown-ups shed their dignity along with their inhibitions in search of rejuvenation and release. The Times quoted a 45-year-old camper, a CEO, who, after spending the retreat asking himself, "Who am I?" concluded he's "a man with an open heart." Expect that line to appear in the Adam Sandler movie that's even now being written.  

Madrigal also couldn't resist the opportunity to draw a comparison between the digital dropouts at Camp Grounded and the hippie dropouts of the 1960s. Here, too, the temptation to cynicism is understandable. The counterculture was an inexhaustible reservoir of silliness, and thus another easy target.

Madrigal seemed to feel that a comment from one of Digital Detox's founders captured the point of the exercise, and the essence of techno anxiety. "People," the founder said, "are feeling like something's not right." Madrigal found the fuzziness of that sentiment annoying. "We need more specific criticisms than the ever-present feeling that 'something's not right,'" he wrote.

That's when I started to get uncomfortable. My guess is that, if asked, pretty much anyone who harbors misgivings about technology, including the attendees at Camp Grounded, would have no trouble ticking off a long list of specific reasons they feel that way, from the 24/7 work cycle and the surveillance society to the impact of automation on employment and the fact that our children don’t go outside anymore. These aren't inchoate concerns.

Madrigal went on to suggest that the Digital Detox campers were using technology as a scapegoat for the inherent challenges of existence. "Who doesn't want depth in their relationships?" he asked. "Or to be judged by the content of one's character, not the company on one's business card? Why won't life slow down and be still? Why can't I figure it all out?" In other words, the problem isn't in our technologies but in ourselves. "My own view," Madrigal wrote, "is that life, itself, is the toxic and addictive bit. You cannot stop doing it and doing it and doing it until eventually you die from too much living."

Madrigal acknowledged that this is a familiar argument. What he didn't acknowledge was that it's also an unsatisfactory one. It suggests that techno anxiety is baseless, which it's not. Fortunately, he abandoned this tack almost as soon as he adopted it. In what amounts to a complete reversal, he went on to argue that the problem isn't that the digital detoxers are blaming technology for their troubles, but that their response to the problems of technology is inadequate.

"Our social networks and smartphones are not 'neutral' tools," he said. "We may be able to manage our relationships with them, but we need to know what they are trying to do, technically, culturally, and financially." The failure of the of the 60s counterculture, he added, was that the back-to-the-landers wanted to abandon technological culture, but they didn't go far enough. They hadn't disconnected from the technological society but merely "lengthened the umbilical cord."

The gist of Madrigal's complaint seemed to be that disengagement is a copout. We've got to take the technological bull by the horns. "There's nothing really wrong with escaping to the boonies," he said. "But individuals unplugging is not actually an answer to the biggest technological problems of our time just as any individual's local, organic dietary habits don't solve global agriculture's issues. These are collective problems that will require collective action based on serious critique."

In some ways I can wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. Again, who wouldn't? But in other ways I found myself thinking maybe there were some problems with Madrigal's own critique.

One thing that bothered me is the implication that Camp Grounded's attendees believe a weekend unplugged constitutes a solution to their problems with technology. I doubt that's the case, and Madrigal's piece drew comments from a couple of those attendees who confirmed as much. They were looking for a breather, a break, a respite from the digital onslaught. Few of us go on vacation expecting we'll solve all the problems at the office while we're away, and we're depressed but not surprised to find they're still there when we return. At best what we hope for is a little perspective.

I also wondered whether Madrigal meant to reject withdrawal as an effective antidote to tech anxiety, or an effective weapon against the sources of tech anxiety. Another word for withdrawal is boycott, and it's a strategy that worked pretty well for Gandhi. The tricky thing with withdrawal—the reason it didn't revolutionize the culture the way the hippies hoped it would—is that you have to stick with it, in numbers significant enough to matter. Madrigal correctly pointed out that we're so deeply enmeshed in the technological society at this point that total withdrawal would probably be fatal.

You don't have to withdraw completely to make a difference, however. I don't think there's much question that the organic food movement, by encouraging millions of consumers to eat healthier foods, has had an impact. Of course it hasn't solved every problem, not by a long shot, but it's been a step in the right direction. Imagine if half the people who use Google decided they were tired of having their search data tracked and sold and started using Duck Duck Go instead. For those who want to strike a blow against the empire, refusal to participate may be one of the best means of resistance there is.

Another small but telling point I objected to arose in Madrigal's discussion of "the New Naturalism." That was the term used by pollster and social scientist Daniel Yankelovich to describe the collective set of values that defined the 60s counterculture. Characteristics of the New Naturalism included, in addition to a suspicion of technology, a rejection of conventional notions of achievement, a "turning toward sensory experience," a desire to adapt to nature rather than master it, and a belief that what mattered was cultivating "honest relationships in small groups" and "seeking self knowledge through introspection."

None of this will surprise anyone who participated in the counterculture movement. (None of it seems especially silly, either.) What stopped me was Yankelovich's conclusion that the New Naturalism was a social, as opposed to a political, movement. As Madrigal describes the argument, most of the hippies "wanted to change their own lives more than they wanted to change society." This is simply wrong. One of the reigning paradigms of 60s philosophy was that the personal is political. True, there was a split between the activist contingent and the inner truth contingent. Adherents of both approaches, however, hoped to remake American culture from top to bottom. One group thought the work should proceed from the outside in, the other from the inside out. From either perspective the distinction between social and political was meaningless.

Madrigal ended his piece by calling for "some sort of rubric" that would allow us to adequately assess our technologies, that would open the way for "a political agenda to remake, improve, or forbid" the technologies that are so forcefully shaping the culture. "How can I judge what I'm using?" he wants to know.

"What are the deleterious impacts? How are they specific to these media and this time? Which effects are *caused by* the technologies and which are *enabled by* the technologies and which just happen to *occur through* the technologies? What are the ethics? What are the mechanics? What is the baseline?

These are huge and necessary questions, and surely Madrigal can't think he's alone in asking them. It wouldn't surprise me if they're exactly the sorts of questions many of the attendees at Camp Grounded had been pondering before they signed up. Maybe they even discussed them while they were there, between yoga workshops and laughing sessions. Indeed, they're the same questions the hippies of the counterculture were asking, and before them the poets of the Romantic movement, and before them the philosophers of ancient Greece. There's nothing new about the New Naturalism.

The Greeks considered technical skills dangerous as well as distracting because technique threatened to bestow power upon those least likely to use it responsibly. Classical Greek culture, writes the philosopher of technology, Carl Mitcham, "was shot through with a distrust of the wealth and affluence that the technai or arts could produce if not kept within strict limits." Allowed to flourish, the Greeks believed, technique led to excess, and then to indolence, so that those who possessed it inevitably began to choose, as Mitcham put it, "the less over the more perfect, the lower over the higher, both for themselves and for others."

Sound familiar? It should. Techno anxiety has been a fixture of the American experience from the beginning. To be sure, the shouts of the enthusiasts have always been louder, but they've always been accompanied by an undercurrent of doubt. As Harvard historian Perry Miller put it some fifty years ago, as a nation we leapt eagerly into the technological torrent, only to find ourselves "bobbing like corks in the flood, unable to get our heads high enough above the waves to tell whether there any longer solid banks on either side or whether we have been carried irretrievably into a pitiless sea, there to be swamped and drowned."

By ending his essay with a series of questions Madrigal implies that if we just get serious and put our heads together, answers will be found. It's possible to endorse the effort while pointing out that it's easier said than done. I've studied the history and philosophy of technology for more than twenty years, and every one of the thinkers in those fields I admire most—Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Lewis Mumford, Neal Postman, Stephen Talbott—at one time or another explicitly declined to offer prescriptions for taming technology's excesses. They recognized that the scope and depth of the problems don't lend themselves to programmatic solutions, and also that any proposal radical enough to make a substantial difference doesn’t stand the slightest chance of being adopted. 

That's why we can't discount the power of personal withdrawal. Granted, it may not be as powerful as concerted collective action, but concerted collective action isn't easy to come by. Refusal to participate isn't the only defense we've got, but it's certainly the most accessible. Even as I wrote this, one of our more sensitive observers of technology, Michael Sacasas, posted an entry on his blog entitled "11 Things I'mTrying to Do In Order to Achieve a Sane, Healthy, and Marginally Productive Relationship with the Internet." His suggestions range from "Don't wake up with the Internet" and "Don't eat meals with the Internet" to my personal favorite, "Do one thing – one whole, complete thing – at a time whenever it's reasonable to do so." Simple, modest steps, but important nonetheless.  

Alexis Madrigal is absolutely correct that we need to think through the problems of technology in order to derive meaningful solutions. I don't want to leave the impression I have any quarrel with that. Just because we haven't managed to do so for the past few centuries doesn't mean we never will. In the meantime, turning our backs on the machine when we can can't hurt. 


Camp Grounded photo, Scott Sporleder

©Doug Hill 2013


  1. Very helpful discussion, Doug.

    "[...] we need to think through the problems of technology in order to derive meaningful solutions [.... ] Just because we haven't managed to do so for the past few centuries doesn't mean we never will."

    Agreed. And even if we never did find comprehensive and permanent solutions, which may end up being the case, it seems to me that the worst we could do is stop thinking/caring/questioning altogether.

    By the way, where's that quotation from Miller from?

  2. Thanks Michael. Miller quote is from his essay, "The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines," originally published in The American Scholar (Winter-Spring 61-62), later published in a collection of his essays under that same title.